is tv drama obsolete?

Thursday, Feb. 27, 2003
5-7 p.m.


What's Happening to Prime Time?

TV has been America's first story-teller for almost half a century. Its evening or so-called prime-time programs are a complex record and reflection of our culture. But only recently has this field of texts been recognized as necessary to preserve and to study. And only recently has the importance of seeing programming historically been recognized by journalists, the entertainment industry and even many media scholars.

This historical awareness is itself an historical event, a signal that what we call television is already in some deep sense past, not so much a living practice any longer but a remnant, disappearing as we watch.

This ongoing series of Forums on prime time television will feature some leading TV scholars and media professionals.

Their assignment: To help us understand the forces shaping contemporary prime time by looking in part to television's past. What is the state of television drama in this era of profound social, economic and technological transition? How have cable and satellite networks and the emergence of the Internet altered the TV medium and its story-telling functions? How are contemporary political realities shaping prime time television? What is the future of "reality programs"? Our speakers and our always lively audience will engage these and related questions with their usual passion and civility.


Jimmie L. Reeves is an associate professor of mass communications at Texas Tech University where he teaches courses in television analysis, media history, and scriptwriting. He is co-author (with Richard Campbell) of Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy. His collaborative study of television’s entertainment forms includes articles on Frank’s Place, Lonesome Dove, Twin Peaks, and The Sopranos. Currently, Reeves is writing a chapter on the Turner Broadcasting System for the Columbia History of American Television (Gary Edgerton, ed.).

Robert J. Thompson is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University where he is also a trustee professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Thompson is the author or editor of five books: Television's Second Golden Age (Continuum, 1996), Prime Time, Prime Movers (Little, Brown, 1992), Adventures on Prime Time (Praeger, 1990), and Television Studies (Praeger 1989). He is currently working on a history of television to be published by Blackwell.


JIMMIE L. REEVES began with some epigraphs.

That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.
-- Walter Benjamin

There are many definitions of what a brand represents and to which audiences. The simplest is the following: Products/service + aura = brand communication. The aura represents the communication, and the signifying and different characteristics of the propositions.
-- Ian Ellwood

Reeves feels these ideas are deeply relevant to commerce and entertainment in the age of digital reproduction. He presented two additional quotations.

When I'm watchin' my TV, and that man comes on to tell me how white my shirts can be. Well he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me. I can't get no satisfaction.
-- Rolling Stones

No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.
-- Nathaniel Hawthorne

Reeves asked the audience to think about these passages as he showed a scene from The Sopranos in which the protagonist finds time to murder a mob turncoat while taking his high school daughter to visit New England colleges .

TV drama may be dormant on the networks, at present so dominated by reality programming, but on premium cable, where there is less pressure to generate nightly ratings and more to have monthly audiences, powerful stories are being told.

Reeves introduced the notion of three eras of television. "TV3," or our current era began with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which led to the consolidation of media conglomerates.

In 1951, the FCC lifted the freeze on the creation of new stations, ushering in the era of TV1. This first stage was dominated by a three-network oligopoly. "Mass marketing" is a key term in describing this period. David Thorburn's notion of television as consensus narrative, a medium that reflects the core values of a culture, is also a key concept for this period.

There are actually three institutions of TV1 that still exist today, and speak to what TV1 was about. One is 60 Minutes, which TV scholar Richard Campbell calls a "mythology for middle America". Another is the Super Bowl, which was transformed in the 80s from a spectacle of sport to a carnival of advertising. The third institution is Monday Night Football, which was launched on ABC by Roone Arledge in the 1970s.

In Reeves' scheme TV1 lasted until the mid 70s, when HBO emerged and changed the economics of television. In 1976 Ted Turner used satellite technology to create the first "Superstation." The end of the1980s saw a proliferation of new channels enabled by satellites. These events ushered in TV2, which is characterized by a shift to niche marketing.

This fragmentation would result in several narrative innovations in the 1980s, designed to lure audiences back to networks. Most important was the serialization of primetime television, or what Robert L. Thompson calls the novelization of television.

HBO was launched as a sports and movie network, but went into original programming to distinguish itself from Showtime and Cinemax. Its original programs were not worth celebrating until the creation of The Garry Shandling Show, the first of the channel's slate of high quality shows.

Reeves noted a paradox in the trends of branding and consolidation. At first, the importance of branding in the age of media conglomeration does not seem to make much sense. We think of branding as a strategy to differentiate a product. With consolidation, things seem to be moving towards another oligopoly. However, in today's situation branding is not so much about differentiating a product as it is about differentiating the pipelines of content from other pipelines. HBO wants to establish a distinct identity, recognized as different from that of CBS or such cable rivals as Cinemax or the Turner Network.

ROBERT L. THOMPSON believes that there is more quality programming right now than ever before, with the possible exception of the 1980s and 90s.

Thompson claimed that in so-called "Golden Age" of television in the 1950s, most programming was artistically negligible. Not until the 1980s did television become a serious adult dramatic form. Now on any given night, viewers will find shows like Gilmore Girls, 24, The Simpsons, and the shows on HBO. Thompson believes that if any of these shows played before 1981, they would be considered among the best in history.

In the first eight decades of the 20th century, a mass audience and a mass culture were formed larger than any other in history. While the first eight decades were spent building this enormous audience, the last two decades were spent taking it apart. Now there is not one popular culture, but many subcultures.

Thompson challenged the notion that consolidation is necessarily detrimental to culture. He cited as an example, the consolidation of the bookselling marketplace. Thompson observed that in major cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago, this was a clear impoverishment of urban culture. However, Thompson believes that in most parts of the United States, Borders and Barnes and Noble are a significant improvement on the smaller bookstores that used to prevail.

Thompson cited the May sweeps period of 2002, when audience measurements establish advertising rates for the following season, as a telling indication of how the TV industry sees itself. Twenty-six programs celebrated old television shows such as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. What networks thought audiences wanted most was not the television of the present or future, but of the past.

Significantly, many of the shows we love to reminisce about, such as The Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver, were not highly rated when originally broadcast.

Thompson next discussed the emergence of reality television. Reality programming began with MTV's The Real World in 1992. Thompson disagrees with those who locate those origins in older shows, such as Candid Camera or An American Family, the 1973 PBS documentary. An American Family was a documentary about a real family living in their real house. While the presence of the camera changes the way those people behaved, it was still a documentary.

The Real World was distinctive because it was half artifice, quasi-fictional. It was, in essence, a documentary of a contrived situation.

Survivor is a new kind of drama, according to Thompson. It gives visibility to characters rarely represented on prime time TV -- for example, a middle aged woman truck driver, an older ex-Navy Seal angry at the world, and an overweight gay man. Richard Hatch, winner of the first Survivor series, was a great antihero, Thompson joked, a cross between Machiavelli and George Washington.

Analyzing the reality show phenomenon, Thompson remarked that the first law of entertainment dynamics is: everybody copies a hit formula. Then there is a saturation point. He predicted an eventual equilibrium of reality and fictional programming. Reality TV shows are also hard to rerun; they lose entertainment value on a second viewing. The enduring television form, said Thompson is the sitcom.

"Interactive television," according to Thompson, is faddish. Thompson argued that an essential aspect of watching television is its passivity. Thompson believes that the most successful example of interactive television may be 1954's Winky Dink and You, a primitive children's show that encouraged viewers to draw or color on an acetate sheet placed over the screen.

DAVID THORBURN, moderator, noted that the alleged diversity of programming in our era of cable and digital technologies is much less visible in times of war and terror, when even media or channels addressing particular subcultures will fall in line with the mainstream, telling the same stories. One could say that in times of stress, many communication systems of a society generate a consensus account of what the culture is like. Television remains one of the most complex mirrors of our culture, regardless of whether we like what we see.


QUESTION: Do either of you watch The Daily Show? Do you have any idea why that show is so interactive? For example, Jon Stewart will even get on top of his desk, or shout things back and forth with the audience.

THOMPSON: To me, what's interesting about The Daily Show is how it became such a part of the way people get their political agenda. Many of my students learned what was important not from CNN, but from that show. And the coverage of the 2000 election was what made Jon Stewart a superstar. CNN and MSNBC would show clips of how The Daily Show covered the day's events. Do you remember George Bush's "thousand points of light" campaign? Nobody heard that speech, and nobody cared until Dana Carvey did his imitation of Bush on Saturday Night Live, and then everybody understood what he meant. I think we underestimate the power of shows like The Daily Show not tell us how to think, but to establish our agendas, defining what we are supposed to be thinking about.

SUSANNAH MANDEL, Comparative Media Studies graduate student: Your mention of Winky Dink reminded me of my father's anecdote about his moment of confusion when he drew directly onto the television, to the great wrath of his mother. I am curious about the interactive factor in reality TV, such as in American Idol where the audience can vote. To what degree do you think the audience needs to feel involved?

THOMPSON: Yes, reality TV is more amenable to interactivity than other forms because you can have people call in and vote. This is part of the appeal of reality TV. I think the only real model of a workable interactive TV show was Big Brother, which was on 24 hours a day on the internet. Sure, when you watch an episode of Homicide, you can go to the website to get another clue, or when you watch the Super Bowl, you can go on-line to get more statistics. But being able to watch the cast of a television show 24 hours a day is an industry revolution. Reality television also is the perfect venue for product placement.

REEVES: It is interesting that in the first season of Big Brother, the audience voted cast members off and it ended up becoming a show without conflict. As for product placement, one of the endorsed products was an alcoholic beverage. One of the cast was a heavy drinker, and I was thinking, what a disaster!

CHARISSE MASSEY, MIT undergraduate: You mentioned reality television shows make poor reruns. But MTV reruns The Real World all the time, and it's highly popular. I think it has partly to do with the demographic, but I was wondering how you would explain it.

THOMPSON: I think part of it has to do with the fact The Real World has no real end to it. It's like The Osbournes or The Anna Nicole Show, where the point in watching is the whole process. Shows with a game element become so focused on the outcome that later repeated viewings have no interest. There is also the demographic reason, that no one seems to see The Real World straight through for the first time. It is eminently rerunnable, you are right.

MASSEY: My theory is that the audience for the show is constantly changing, so there are kids who have only seen the last three seasons, and are interested in the concept and want to see the earlier seasons with the same kind of characters.

REEVES: I think you are absolutely right; as with Sesame Street, the audience is always aging out of the show and new audiences are always appearing, so you can run it forever.

THORBURN: This question of reruns is complicated by the fact that over time visual artifacts take on new meanings. They become not contemporary experiences, but historical artifacts. Elements that were virtually invisible to the original audience may become signature features of a text for later viewers. Matters of fashion -- clothing, hairstyles -- are an obvious example. So are customs, and the attitudes they embody, such as smoking cigarettes or drinking. One irony is that something completely ephemeral may become marketable later. A dramatic current instance of this is the clever way the cable channel Turner Movie Classics exploits old Hollywood trailers, shorts, and other industry advertisements.

THOMPSON: I'll back off, and say that reality TV shows are not rerunnable on the scale of other shows. You can sell a show like Seinfeld or Friends in the before-dinner time slots for huge chunks of money. Real World reruns do not draw large ratings compared to these shows, which in some markets are more popular than the local news. Another example of what Thorburn was saying is the Game Show Network, which has managed to show totally ephemeral, cheap game shows. It serves as a time machine. Although it provides a very bizarre aesthetic experience, its appeal wears off quickly.

ZHAN LI, CMS graduate student: I have two questions. First, can you foresee what a reality TV presidential campaign would be like? I'm aware of some show in development that selects an average American to become a candidate for president. There was also a TV show in Argentina where the president set up a camera in his office so viewers could watch him.

REEVES: I think that would succeed more on the Internet, where he could set up a website. But I'm not sure a reality TV president would succeed.

LI: My second question is about Joe Millionaire. Part of the controversy about this show involved the fact that it seemed heavily scripted. Some people felt they were being duped. One article I read compared it to the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. But why isn't there as much ethical uneasiness today as there was in the 50's?

REEVES: Joe Millionaire is the only series I know that had three final episodes. I guess I'm less troubled about it than I am about Michael Jackson's nose, and the fact that it was on three networks. To me, that is the scandal.

THORBURN: But wait, let's be clear on where the objection is. To return to the question, what is it about the pretense that offends people? That realty shows have a scripted quality?

REEVES: But at the same time, you have a show where the basic premise is that a guy lies to a bunch of women. Shouldn't the audience expect being lied to as well? It's about a deception that could be played out on the audience too. Some of these new reality shows have a panoptic quality about them: they are all about surveillance. There is an aesthetic of surveillance.

THOMPSON: But still, a program like COPS is in the tradition of documentary. When George Orwell wrote about "Big Brother," he assumed that the camera watching us was going to be an oppression. He didn't have television in mind, nor the idea that people would be begging to be deprived of their privacy. True voyeurism occurs when people do not know there are others looking. In these new shows, they do know they are looking, and that's more exhibitionism than voyeurism.

QUESTION: In the past, there were a lot of shows that were really good, that made you think. So with these new shows like The Sopranos, are we really talking about something different, or are we talking about high quality and low quality? Sopranos is high quality. The show Naked City was superb, but it is not rerun today. I don't think that many current shows today are the best shows ever. I don't see the difference that has been posited.

THOMPSON: I watched Naked City three days ago, and remembered it as a brilliant show. Something I am surprised about is that for some shows, whatever seems to be a property that makes the show interesting can wear out pretty fast. Watch Hill Street Blues now and you might find it is hard to get through. That is what differentiates true masterpieces and just stuff that is really good at the time that it plays. I think The Simpsons, will last. And The Andy Griffith Show. Its obliviousness to its own era, and to any period, makes it timeless.

SETH SCHULMAN, Hill Holiday: Do you think Seinfeld will be seen as a masterpiece a hundred years from now?

THOMPSON: I think we'll still be watching it thirty years from now. But a hundred years from now, we may need footnotes to understand what they are taking about in the show. This is partly why it doesn't do so well abroad, because it such a part of the vernacular of a time and place.

REEVES: We think of Seinfeld as incredibly popular, but it was rated number 60 with African American audiences, while such counter-programming as New York Undercover was among the ten most popular shows for that subculture. The two shows offer very different depictions of race in New York. Seinfeld implies there are no racial problems in New York. I believe for that reason alone it shouldn't be considered a masterpiece.

-- Compiled by Lilly Kam
-- Photos by Lilly Kam


Summary of Jimmie Reeves' special seminar on Frank's Place.